The earthquakes started when Esther was in high school.
She had never expected the ground beneath her feet to be anything but steady. After all, this was Oklahoma, the middle of the middle—a place so stagnant that most people mistook the first tremors for a large truck passing by or the rumble of distant thunder.
As time passed and the tremors grew more frequent, there was some alarm, then speculation, then wary acceptance. By the time Esther started college, the quakes had become commonplace. The only time she noticed them was on the rare occasions when they shook her awake in the middle of the night.
One Thursday morning after a particularly shaky night found her running to make it to her Intro to Anthropology class. She felt like she was always running lately, struggling to keep up in a place where everything moved faster than in the slow, quiet town she was from. She’d bolted out of her tiny, gray-walled dorm room at five minutes past nine, having done well to put on matching shoes and make it out the door with her coat.
A chilly wind fought her all the way to the drafty old building where her class met. The cold seemed more malicious than usual, especially for early December. Winter loomed in every shadow and gust. Esther’s hometown was just three hours’ drive to the southeast, but she could tell that the weather was a different creature here. It challenged her, just like everything else since she’d left home. It was pushing her, straining at the edges of her resolve.
Push back. That’s what she kept telling herself.
She arrived at class wind-blown and gasping. Her late entrance raised no eyebrows. The TA didn’t even glance up from the laptop where the day’s presentation played in miniature. Behind him, images of cave drawings flashed across a white wall.
Esther slid into a seat and took a notebook out of her bag. It was an empty gesture. She had yet to take any useful notes. Instead, the pages were full of doodles. Intro to Anthropology was a blow-off course meant to fill the elective quota on the average undergrad’s transcript.
Esther’s transcript was a source of daily anxiety. She was sure that no freshman had ever had such a hodgepodge of pointless classes. To her, it screamed one thing: Undeclared. She had no idea what she was doing. She knew her advisor could see it. She suspected that anyone could sniff it on her. She’d hoped that she’d have a better idea what to do after one semester, but with finals drawing near she was no closer to figuring out what she wanted to be in some distant, murky future or—even worse—in the present.
This had never been a problem in the preceding nineteen years of her life. She was Esther Rainey, oldest daughter of Pastor Jim Rainey and Cheryl Rainey. The nucleus of her existence was a modest brick building with stained glass windows and carpet the color of cranberry sauce. Every Sunday, the fifty Free Will Baptists who lived in Pastor Jim’s corner of the county would fill the building with prayers and hymns. Esther had no problem with the hymns. The praying, however, had always seemed to her to be an exercise in futility.
It wasn’t that Esther had lost faith; she’d never had much to begin with. No crisis had altered her childhood. No terrible event had robbed her of her innocence. In fact, it was the mindless tedium of it all that had finally gotten to her. What was prayer if not a plea for things to remain the same? Lord, please deliver us from evil. Dear Father, please protect us in these troubled times. Jesus, guide the hearts of our leaders so that they uphold our beliefs. Listening Sunday after Sunday as the faithful begged God to maintain the status quo had produced in Esther a compulsive need to work against it. When she was offered a full ride to one of the best Bible colleges in the country, she turned it down for partial housing assistance and a heap of student loans to attend the biggest public university in the state.
“The most prominent subject matter in both the Lascaux and Sulawesi cave paintings is large, dangerous animals,” the TA said as he paused the presentation. The image of a brown, hoofed beast froze on the wall. “In some cases, these are the animals that primitive cultures hunted; in others they are the animals that they feared.” He hit play, and a hyena with massive, rounded shoulders replaced the hoofed beast. “Over two continents and 20,000 years apart, these paintings illustrate that the relationship between predator and prey was central to our ancestors’ way of life.” He looked up and chuckled. “Imagine if you could go back and tell them that your biggest dilemma is getting the wrong order at Starbucks.”
A few polite snickers followed. Esther noted the time and began to pack up for the frigid walk to her next class. As she stowed her notebook, she knocked her pen off the desk. It dropped to the next row of seats where it rolled into a foot. The owner of the foot bent down to retrieve the pen. Esther saw a swell of muscles beneath his sweater. When he turned to give the pen back, he flashed her a grin that seemed wide for his otherwise ideal face.
Esther wondered how she’d never noticed him before. A chin like Clark Kent. Eyes like infinity pools. Hair that could sell product to a bald man. Where had this male model come from and why was he trying to hand her something?
“Oh, my pen!” Esther said, shaking off her stupor. “Thank you.”
The guy was still grinning, emanating something all at once dazzling and elusive. “No problem. Hey, I like your hair.”
In an attempt at trendiness, Esther had spent several hours of the past weekend bleaching the bottom six inches of her hair. The result was a brassy effect with shades of goldenrod at the tips switching to her natural red halfway up.
“My roommate says it looks like candy corn,” Esther said. The comment had not endeared the new look to her and she’d vowed to dye it back the next chance she got. Now, with the guy grinning at her, she was glad she hadn’t gotten around to it yet.
“I love candy corn,” the guy said. “I’m Chris.” He stuck out his hand and it took a moment before Esther registered that she was supposed to shake it.
“Esther,” she said, enamored by the smooth, strong feel of Chris’s fingers. Her small, freckled hand disappeared into his.
“You’re freezing,” Chris said, giving her palm a squeeze.
Esther laughed. “Nobody told me this place imports its weather from Greenland.”
“The wind makes it feel colder than it really is,” Chris said. He released her hand (reluctantly, or so it seemed to Esther). “Do you have far to walk to your next class?”
“Collings Hall,” Esther said with a preliminary shiver.
Chris let out a low whistle. “Quite a ways. Can I walk with you?”
“Only if you keep me warm,” Esther said.
No sooner had the words left her mouth than she felt a prickle at the nape of her neck— primordial instincts, stirring. It was the reaction of a tribesman who hears the subtlest shift in the whispering of the tall grasses; a warning of concealed danger, like the pad of a massive paw or the gleam of rapacious eyes glimpsed through the leaves.
Esther turned. The classroom was emptying and there was only one person left in the back row. How such an eerie figure had escaped notice only reinforced that his dark blue coat with its wide hood was meant to do just that. He was long. Not tall—long. That was the impression Esther got, draped as he was over the desk, legs stretched so that his feet were resting in the next row. The posture implied laziness, or, for many students condemned to early class, sleep. Esther sensed that this person was alert. Watching. Waiting.
For what? Esther shivered again, this time for no reason related to the weather.
Chris draped his arm around Esther’s narrow shoulders and steered her out of the building. He leaned into her, his body a shield against the gusts. He smelled of cinnamon gum and deodorant and, underneath that, a masculine musk that would normally have Esther laughing louder at his jokes and trying to press closer against the cable-knit expanse of his chest. Once or twice she glanced over her shoulder, certain she’d heard footsteps trailing at a distance. There was nobody close by except for a bearded guy with a placard that said STOP FRACKING NOW in bold, foot-high letters.
“What kind do you like?”
“Hmmm?” Esther dropped back into the conversation, embarrassed. She’d mumbled responses to Chris for the past five minutes without hearing what he was saying.
“Music? What kind?”
“Oh.” Esther shrugged. “Just about everything, I guess.”
“There’s a punk bluegrass band playing at The Bakery tonight.”
Chris grinned the almost-but-not-quite too wide grin. “It’s a place up by Campus Corner. Used to be a bakery. Now they have live shows.”
They’d arrived at Collings Hall. The uncomfortable twitch on the back of Esther’s neck had not subsided. She caught movement out of the corner of her eye, but when she looked there was nothing.
“So…wanna go?” Chris’s eyebrows were raised in anticipation.
“Sure,” Esther said. “Meet you there?”
“I’ll pick you up.”
They took out their phones. Esther’s model was several generations behind Chris’s. She tried not to squirm as he entered his number on what she imagined must be an antique device to him. They agreed upon a time, good-byes evaporated in white puffs of breath, and Esther was left to contemplate what had turned out to be an odd, exciting morning.
By lunch, the impending date with Chris the male model had overcome all the primitive warnings in Esther’s mind and replaced them with thoughts of an even more primal nature. It occurred to her that this would be the ideal occasion for the short sequined skirt she’d bought on clearance the last trip to the mall. She hadn’t been out with a boy since leaving home for college. Four months. It had to be some kind of record.
She pondered the night’s possibilities over gravy fries in the campus cafeteria. The memory of the strange watcher from Anthropology had all but faded when she noticed the lone figure at a table across the room. He possessed the same alert stillness as he had that morning in the classroom. There was no food tray on the table. He was not there to dine, opting instead to be creepy.
Esther’s breath caught in her throat. She noted the navy coat with its glinting row of double buttons. The hood was still up, lending its wearer the outline of a Gregorian monk—or perhaps the Grim Reaper.
A hand touched Esther’s shoulder. She jumped.
“Easy there, Candy Corn,” said Mackenzie, Esther’s roommate. She’d arrived with three sorority sisters in tow. They were all wearing matching leggings with oversized maroon sweaters and sheepskin boots.
Esther returned her gaze to the table across the room. The mysterious figure was gone.
“Looks like somebody’s going on a carb overload!” Mackenzie squealed as she and the sisters took up spots opposite from Esther.
In a show of defiance, Esther dragged three fries through her gravy and shoved them all in her mouth.
Mackenzie shook her head. “You know I’m just giving you a hard time. I wish I could eat like that, but there’s this mixer coming up and then the Christmas parade.”
“And our costumes are teensy!” one of the sisters exclaimed, spurring nods and grumbles from the others.
Mackenzie shoved some kale around her plate and sighed. “Speaking of which, we’re going to be gluing feathers to our leotards tonight, so I’ll need the room. That okay?”
Esther shrugged. “Whatever. I’ve got a date.”
Four pairs of eyes locked on her.
“Oh?” Mackenzie’s single arched brow synced up with the curl of one side of her mouth. “Do tell. Upper classman? Greek boy?”
“Freshman…I think,” Esther said. “Not in a frat, as far as I know.”
Mackenzie snorted. “Geez, don’t give us his whole life story.”
The other girls giggled. Esther rolled her eyes. “I just met him this morning. He’s taking me to a concert at The Bakery.”
At this, the giggling stopped.
Esther stuffed a fry in her mouth. “What?”
“That old place on Campus Corner?” Mackenzie asked.
Mackenzie and her posse shared a look that Esther knew all too well. She’d seen the ladies in her father’s church pull the same face before divulging what they viewed as appalling news. We’ve just learned that the high school counselor has been handing out condoms. The horror!
“Don’t you watch the news?” Mackenzie asked. “That’s the last place anyone saw that Fisher girl alive.”
The name didn’t set off any alarms. Esther furrowed her brow. “Fisher girl?”
“Kate Fisher,” supplied a ponytailed girl to Mackenzie’s right. “A Delta. She went to see a band at The Bakery back in September. She never came back to campus. They found her body in a landfill a couple of weeks ago after somebody saw a stray dog carrying around her shin.”
Esther decided that the girls’ appalling news faces were justified. She shoved her tray away with a grimace. “Did they catch who did it?”
Mackenzie shook her head. “There’s only rumors. Some people—”
“All of Delta House, basically,” interjected the ponytailed girl.
“Some people,” Mackenzie continued, “think a guy got Kate way more messed up than he meant to and when she died of alcohol poisoning or whatever, he freaked out and dumped her body. Nobody knows who she was with, though. The Bakery is this dark, crowded place, and all the witnesses were wasted, so…”
“But then there’s the other theory,” said the girl to Mackenzie’s left. Her sweater looked homemade. The puff paint around the school letters was lopsided. “A hooded figure was seen hanging out around The Bakery that night. According to legend, there was a serial killer who passed through town in the 70’s. He wore a hooded coat, so they called him The Reaper. He was caught, but some say they got the wrong guy and now he’s back, or it’s a copycat killer.”
Mackenzie scoffed. “That’s a load of crap and you know it, Jess.”
The ponytailed girl leaped to Jess’s defense. “How do you know?”
“Because she heard it from a Theta, and everyone knows they’re full of it,” Mackenzie retorted.
The word Reaper was emblazoned across Esther’s mind, flashing high beams behind the image of the shadow figure who’d darkened her morning.
“Seriously, though, be careful,” Mackenzie said, looking Esther in the eye. “I’ve got a can of pepper spray on my keychain if you want to borrow it.”
The rest of the afternoon, Esther stayed alert for anyone in suspicious outerwear. She considered bailing on her date, but then she told herself that Chris was a big guy. Maybe he was a rower or a wrestler, given his V-shaped build. Surely he could handle things if the wraith-like reaper made an appearance. Besides, Esther had taken Mackenzie up on the loan of her pepper spray. It was now wedged into her purse next to her cell phone.
Night fell all of a sudden, the way it always seemed to in the last gasp of autumn. Esther hurried to her dorm after class so that she could get ready and be out before Mackenzie and Co. descended on the place with craft supplies.
Her heart raced as she pulled on her skirt. It was all sort of thrilling, really: a hot date on a cold night, a whiff of danger on the air. She slid on a pair of ankle boots. The extra two inches of height made her feel more present, like she took up just a little extra space in the world.
Esther had always thought of herself as compact. She despised the word “petite.” It implied daintiness. I’ll be damned if I’m dainty, she thought, applying strawberry red lipstick. After a liberal amount of plum colored eyeliner to complement the honey tones in her eyes, she proclaimed herself delectable and headed downstairs to wait for Chris.
The wind had died down since that morning, but there persisted an ambient chill that had Esther re-thinking the mini skirt. There was no time to go back and change, though, because Chris pulled up in a Jeep.
Esther climbed inside and was stifled by a combination of cologne and pine air fresheners.
“Wow,” Chris said, his eyes lighting up as they lingered on the expanse of thigh between the hem of Esther’s skirt and her knees. “Nobody’s going to be looking at me tonight.”
A vestigial sense of Sunday school modesty caused Esther to blush. “Um…thanks?”
“You okay?” Chris asked. “You seem a little tense.”
Esther giggled and then instantly hated herself for it. “It’s stupid. My roommate and her friends got me wound up over some rumor about this place we’re going to.”
“Oh yeah?” Chris’s grin was a white glimmer in the streetlights.
“So this girl disappeared a while back, right? And they said the last place anyone saw her was The Bakery. But that’s not all. Supposedly there’s this hooded serial killer who hangs out around there and I kept seeing some creep in a hood today. I swear he was stalking me or something.”
Chris gave Esther’s arm a squeeze. “Don’t you worry about a thing. You’re with me. You think I’d let some stalker creep get you?”
Esther could see the hard, rounded curves of Chris’s shoulders underneath his leather jacket. His hand on her arm was massive—even more so when he let his fingers slide down to encompass her wrist. Rather than reassuring her, however, it only reminded Esther how small she was. Dainty. She sighed and stared out the window the rest of the way.
Esther’s peculiar, watchful mood lasted until she and Chris entered The Bakery. Once inside, the energy and noise of the place swept Esther up and imbued her with revival-level zeal. She’d never been to a live secular show before. The band’s style was machine-gun fast with dizzying arrangements of old rock and country standards. The crowd kept up a routine of synchronized jumping that got more intense with each chorus. By the fifth song, Esther was sweaty, breathless, and parched.
“Fantastic, isn’t it?” Chris shouted. He’d drawn her to the periphery of the crowd. To Esther’s delight, he held two perspiring cups of clear, cold water.
She took one of the cups and downed it. “Fantastic,” she said, nodding. “God, it’s hot though.”
Chris threw back his head and laughed. “Yeah, especially when you do cardio through every single song. Here, have another.” He gave her his water and she drank that, too.
The next few songs were slower—or maybe it was Esther who slowed down. Everything seemed suddenly brighter and more tangible. The guitar notes were like flecks of golden light that she could pluck out of the air. The energy that had been building in her all night effervesced into something wonderful. Every stranger was now a friend, every encounter a discovery of new sensations. She collided with Chris and buried her face in the warm leather of his jacket. His chin grazed her forehead and she reached up to pull him down to her. In that moment, she wanted to taste him and wrap herself up in him entirely.
Then something caught her eye.
A long, dark figure stood near an exit in the back of the room. Everyone and everything else—the whole universe—was moving, but the figure was so eerily still that Esther knew it was watching her.
“Chris,” Esther whispered. “He’s here.”
Chris’s lips were hot by her ear. “Who’s here?”
Chris didn’t seem to hear her. Esther tried to point, but kept losing track of her own position in the pulsating crowd. Fear replaced her exhilaration.
“Take me out of here!” she shouted, grasping Chris by the front of his jacket. “Keep me safe!”
Chris picked Esther up and carried her out to the Jeep. Sights flickered and bobbed around her, never settling. It was like viewing the world from the inside of a lava lamp.
“Don’t worry, baby, I’ll keep you safe,” Chris was saying. Or seemed to be saying.
Esther didn’t like that he’d called her “baby.” Then again, maybe he hadn’t. She didn’t fully trust her brain.
“Where are we going?” Esther asked. Even in her state, she’d worked out that they weren’t headed toward campus. The brighter, harsher lights of the town’s commercial hub flew by them. Ahead lay an abandoned car lot and beyond it, a strip mall.
Chris did not answer. Beautiful, big, strong Chris. He was grinning again, only this time the grin had forgotten where to stop. It split his face too wide and crept toward his ears. Esther blinked rapidly, certain that this was another betrayal by her own brain.
“This isn’t the way to my dorm,” Esther tried again, sitting up straighter.
“Who said I was taking you to your dorm?” Chris asked. His tongue danced behind his teeth. It was an odd tongue; much too big, really. And the teeth. There were too many. Esther wondered if he’d always had so many, or if she was only noticing it now that his grin was threatening to circumnavigate his head.
But I can’t trust my brain, Esther reasoned. Then, more alarmingly: And whose fault is that?
“You put something in my water,” she said.
Chris laughed. It was a high, cackling chortle that shook Esther’s survival instinct out of its drug-addled stupor. She felt around for her purse.
“Are you scared, baby?” Chris asked. “That’s good. That’s real good.”
The lights of town grew sparser. They were almost past the strip mall. Esther’s fingers were dumb; her movements, panicky. Somehow she got her purse unzipped.
Chris glanced over and saw her hand near her cell phone. He knocked it away. “You won’t be needing that.” Esther hadn’t been reaching for the phone. She’d been reaching for the little metal cylinder beside it. She leveled the pepper spray at Chris’s face and squeezed the trigger.
A hot mist clouded the front seat of the Jeep. Chris screamed and brought his arms up to his face. The Jeep bounced over the curb, across a small ditch, and into a parking lot where it smashed into a light post. Esther’s head hit the dashboard.